The F Street Mess

Augustus Caesar Dodge (D-IA)

Augustus Caesar Dodge (D-IA)

Chastened and committed once more to proslavery extremes, David Rice Atchison returned to Washington for the 33rd Congress in December, 1853. His Democratic party had control of both chambers by a safe margin and Bourbon Dave took his place as President pro tempore of the Senate. Even if Atchison had pulled back from his earlier surrender, he had the clout to get a Nebraska bill through and the momentum seemed to press for just that. Iowa’s Augustus Caesar Dodge submitted the same bill that passed the House last Congress, the Douglas-approved legislation that would leave the Missouri Compromise in place. The Senate referred it to Douglas’ Committee on Territories.

Bourbon Dave had influence and he returned to Washington determined to use it against Douglas’ free Nebraska bill, beginning with his housemates. In an era before airplanes or easy rail travel, members of Congress went to Washington to stay. For the length of a session, they would hear from their constituents through letters, newspapers, and the telegraph, but not in person unless the constituents came to them. As people naturally do, they congregated with like-minded sorts to create little homes away from home. Some preferred to live alone, but many threw together to rent a boarding house they then called a mess. Atchison lived, amid house slaves and Senators, in a mess on F Street. His housemates included Virginia’s Robert M. T. Hunter, chairman of the Senate Finance committee, and James Mason of Fugitive Slave Act fame, chair of the Foreign Affairs committee and South Carolina’s Andrew P. Butler, chair of the Judiciary committee. Atchison bent their ears about Missouri’s vulnerabilities and how a free Nebraska could mean the end of Missourian slavery. Furthermore he assured them that he had a practical issue, not just one touching on the South’s always prickly sense of honor. Hemp and tobacco would grow in Nebraska territory just as they did across the border in Missouri.

James Mason

James Mason (D-VA)

The F Street mess had some reservations. They did not all see a rosy future for slavery in the future Kansas, or for that matter in Missouri. Even if Atchison had it right and plantations could creep up the Missouri river they could not hope to match the huge profits of the cotton kingdom. Maybe, even if it presented greater risk, the South would do better to concede Nebraska and look to enslaving New Mexico, Utah, or a section of Mexico proper stolen away fair and square. Perhaps old man Calhoun even had the right of it and they should focus not on regaining a majority but instead on ensuring a permanent slave power veto on all national laws to preserve the slavery they had.

But the mess had other things on its mind than just the practicalities. Restriction on slavery entailed its immorality. One does not embrace laws to ban things one approves of and so accepting the restriction meant at least implicitly accepting that slavery deserved banning. No Southern politician could lightly court that impression, lest he face a firestorm back home. The Missouri Compromise, they decided, had to go because as long as it stood it declared Southerners inferior just as the Wilmot Proviso did, unclean lepers that belonged not in the nation’s future but on the dustbin of history. Douglas’ old bill, now revived by Dodge for the new Congress, could not stand. If the Little Giant wanted Nebraska, he would have to win over the F Street patriarchs.

Your input is welcome

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.